Tuesday, February 07, 2006

War and Peace in southern Russia

Petr Vasil’evich Alhutov & Valentina Anufrievna Chumachenko

I stumbled on the photos the other day, while trying to organize my office. Of course this being the digital age, they were on my hard drive. Black and white shots I’d taken a few years back while directing my last documentary.

I was in the southern Russian city of Volgograd at the time, a massive edifice of crumbling Soviet-era industrial glory where a bottle of beer was cheaper to buy than that of water. A place replete with fading glories and forlorn parks more grey than green.

Russia can, at times, overwhelm you with its past, though not necessarily in the physical sense. The architecture of so many of its cities is barely a half century old and without character or merit; those grand historical piles you might visit are often re-creations painstakingly built from rubble; and even the names – of streets, towns or entire regions – change with regimes, rulers and political whims.

But her past still defines Russia, for it is filled with angst, drama, tragedy, intrigue, humour, sorrow, joy and a depth of other emotions that can be glimpsed in so many who live there.

Looking again at the photo of Petr Alhutov and Valentina Chumachenko, this all came back to me. Both were veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad, that horrific struggle for possession of the city now known as Volgograd. Alhutov was a young Red Army infantryman who, on a very cold February morning, escorted German field marshal Freidrich von Paulus into captivity at the end of the six-month long battle. I remember he mumbled to me that the German commander looked forlorn and haggard, with a numb look in his eyes and a nervous tick in his hands. Alhutov saw nothing heroic in what he’d done as a soldier, merely the need to carry out an order and hope to get out of things alive.

Chumachenko, though, was a feisty and vivacious woman with a commanding presence. Even in her late seventies it was obvious she must have been a heartbreaker for the boys when younger. Back then she’d been a nurse assigned to a Red Army tank battalion in the war. “We were all tank drivers,” she told me. “My husband was a tank driver. My brother was a tank driver. It must be in our blood.” As a nineteen year-old woman in the midst of the greatest battle ever fought – around three million fought at Stalingrad and some two million died – Chumachenko knew that the options available at the time were limited.

“Capture? That would never happen,” she told me in a parkette near the Volga River. “Do you know what would have happened to me?” And retreat, I asked? “No. Never.” Her eyes stare off somewhere, possible remembering the edict from Stalin that had retreating Russians shot by their own troops. “We had only one option: to survive.”

A dog began barking somewhere off in a nearby apartment block, interrupting our interview. Without bashing an eyelid, Valentina bellowed loudly in Russian for the owner to shut the beast up and – surprisingly – the dog is silenced.

The pain that the Great Patriotic War created in the former Soviet Union is immeasurable. No other nation has ever felt such a bloodletting and few families are without harsh memories of the time. But Valentina Chumachenko, at least, had found some peace in her life, possibly from the passing of the years.

“You understand, we didn’t invite them here,” she says of the invaders. “I meet the Germans who come here now and they tell me ‘Hitler made us do it.’ But people are responsible for their own actions. But still, it is time. Time for us all to live in peace, to live in kindness, with good hearts and feelings no matter what nationality we are. These constant wars, they cause such trauma to people. How many people must die? Who needs this Chechnya?”

Valentina’s last comment has always stuck with me, the words of a battle-scared warrior musing on a nearly unknown war raging a few hundred kilometers south of where we sitting that late May morning. For as my journal notebook records, the very next day a bomb exploded in Volgograd killing a number of young soldiers near the local army base with the papers speculating it was Chechen rebels. Sadly, it barely merited a national headline. It was the currency of life accepted in Russian society at the time.

Valentina Chumachenko, Volgograd, May 2000